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Sherry Turkle

“Human relationships are rich, messy and demanding. We clean them up with technology. Texting, emailing and posting; all of these things let us present ourselves as we want. We get to edit, which means that we get to delete, which then means that we get to retouch; the face, the voice, the flesh, the body -- not too little and not too much, but just right.” Sherry Turkle

Have you ever text messaged someone who’s in the same room or e-mailed people in your office rather talking to them face-to-face? While our beloved new gadgets make our lives more efficient—and entertaining—are they actually separating us, instead of connecting us? Turkle says they are. The focus of Sherry Turkle’s research work and her books is human society and technology; the digital era and human relationships within it. She has spent over three decades studying the way people interact with machines, and is growing increasingly worried about the amount of human interaction people are happy to delegate to robots or carry out over phones and computers. Professor Turkle points out that we have distanced ourselves from others and use technology and social media as shields which prevent us from truly connecting with other human beings. Although this true cyber-diva is sometimes called a 'technophobe', she is not anti-technology, mind you, but pro-connection.

In 1978 Sherry Turkle had just written her first book, on French psychoanalysis, when MIT hired her to study the sociology of mind sciences. "I began to hear students talking about their minds as machines, based on the early personal computers they had." They'd use phrases like "debugging" or "don't talk to me until I clear my buffer". "I'd never heard any of this stuff before." So Turkle began to study the way that artificial intelligence was taking hold in everyday life, at a time when these interactions with machines were pretty raw. She was literally “in the right place at the right time."

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Turkle stayed with the subject for 30 years. In the early days she was labeled as a "cyber diva." "People thought I was very pro-computer. I was on the cover of Wired magazine." Then things began to change. In the early 80s,"we came to meet this technology and became smitten, like young lovers," she says, but today our attachment is unhealthy. In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Turkle says we have reached a point she calls the "robotic moment" – where we delegate important human relationships, in particular interactions at "the most vulnerable moments in life" – childhood and old age – to robots. "We are so worried about Asperger's and so worried about the way we communicate face to face. To me, as somebody who likes technology, this is just playing with fire."

One of the most enlightening books about the ethical and social repercussions of technology, Alone Together, consists of two parts. The first half of the work is devoted to Turkle's discussion about the use of robots to help people. She focuses her discussion on how robot pets and babies can ease loneliness of the elderly in retirement homes. This, of course, is in response to the feelings of abandonment felt by people who are now seen as a burden to the younger generation. Turkle describes different experiments in which senior citizens and children (two of the most emotionally vulnerable groups) are given robots that can respond to human voice and human touch. She then documents words and experiences of specific individuals, showing the emotional connections that the young and old can create with these artificial beings. One cannot help but feel a kind of collective shame in being part of a society that would imagine the need for such things. Turkle, however, does not condemn as much as remind us that human needs are complex, and how we frame our ethical and social challenges are just as crucial as deliberating the possible solutions for them.

Turkle frequently takes calls from journalists seeking comments on the latest story about robots in nursing homes, teacherbot programmes or nannybots to look after children. She sees married couples who prefer to have their fights online. "My studies of funerals are hilarious," she says. "Everybody's texting. When I ask them about it, they say, 'Yeah, I do it during the boring bits.' So that's the question: what does it mean as a society that we are there for the boring bits?"

She is particularly concerned about the effect on children. "I am a single mum. I raised my daughter and she always got my full attention." Today our phones are always on, and always on us. Parents are too busy texting to watch their kids, she cautions. There's been an increase in playground accidents. "These kids are extremely lonely. We are giving everybody the impression that we aren't really there for them. It's toxic." This is what she means by "alone together" – that our ability to be in the world is compromised by "all that other stuff" we want to do with technology.

The second part of the work focuses on the impact of social networks, gaming, and virtual worlds on people's lives and relationships. While there's a good deal here that I have thought about many times before, Turkle's exposition is an effective showing and not a mere telling of her beliefs. She interviews high school students, computer programmers, young professionals, and people of the pre-Internet generation and asks them about the use of technology in their everyday lives. What they have to say about how technology creates chronic demands on them and steers them to a life of loneliness and isolation is unsettling, but not surprising. When we are always connected, we can no longer tolerate the idea of being alone, of not having someone respond to what we say or think. Ironically, of course, this emphasis on media performance only debilitates us socially, in an interpersonal sense (if one can still even think of the world this way). We "forget" the value of stillness and solitude that can revive our lives, lending them purpose and meaning, and strengthening our relationships. Instead, solitude frightens us. Turkle explains quite profoundly: "Loneliness is failed solitude."

What she proposes in the end is an examination of our values and the ways in which we frame social, even existential, problems--each are crucial to a healthier understanding of ourselves in an age of invasive technology: "What I call realtechnik suggests that we step back and reassess things when we hear triumphalist or apocalyptic narratives about how to live with technology. Realtechnik is skeptical about linear progress. It encourages humility, a state of mind in which we are most open to facing problems and reconsidering decisions." The Net, she states, is still young, but the human beings who imagined the technology we know today, is not.

For many Turkle states inconvenient truths, and she has come to be seen as a naysayer, even a technophobe. She is no longer the cover girl for Wired. They haven’t even reviewed Alone Together. In fact, the initial reviews of this book, Turkle points out, can be summarized as "everybody likes Facebook, can't she just get with the program?" This, she adds, is unfair to the 15 years of research behind it. "I mean, give me the credit. I didn't do a think piece. I was reporting. People tell me they wish Siri (iPhone companion) was their best friend. I was stunned. You can't make this stuff up."

In her latest book, published in October 2015, this renowned author and researcher investigates how the flight from conversation undermines our relationships, creativity and productivity and why reclaiming face-to-face conversation can help us regain lost ground. Here she investigates a troubling consequence: at work, at home, in politics, and in love, we find ways around conversation, tempted by the possibilities of a text or an email in which we don’t have to look, listen, or reveal ourselves.

We develop a taste for what mere connection offers. The dinner table falls silent as parents compete with phones for their children’s attention. Friends learn strategies to keep conversations going when only a few people are looking up from their phones. At work, we retreat to our screens although it is conversation at the water cooler that increases not only productivity but our commitment to work. Online, we only want to share opinions that our followers will agree with – a politics that shies away from the real conflicts and solutions of the public square. These days, always connected, we see loneliness as a problem that technology should solve. Afraid of being alone, we rely on other people to give us a sense of ourselves, and our capacity for empathy and relationship suffers. We see the costs of the flight from conversation everywhere: conversation is the cornerstone for democracy and in business it is good for the bottom line. In the private sphere, it builds empathy, friendship, love, learning and productivity. Where in Alone Together Turkle explores how we become more socially isolated while more socially connected, this book explores how, while we may "talk" and "share" more, we do not meaningfully engage in, substantially reflect upon, and adequately experience the intimacy and opportunities that conversation may offer us. Rather than allowing ourselves to risk and give open-ended time to another being, we come to approach relationships in terms of efficiency, as a matter of transaction, with an instrumentalist attitude: The open-ended conversations in which we may endanger ourselves and develop skills of empathy and compassion are being lost, she fears. She also reminds us that conversation matters because it is not just a means to an end, of knowing more about a person or enhancing outcomes. It matters because it is what makes us human, what allows us to accept and understand what technology seeks to minimize and repress, the ambiguity, nuance, and brokenness that characterizes being a member of our species. In order to properly address this problem, we need to "converse," with all the danger and vulnerability that entails. Turkel tells about employers and recruiters coaching a new generation that does not know how to initiate or carry on a conversation, preferring to communicate by text and email then wondering what’s wrong with that. Meanwhile, writers, artists, scientists and literary scholars talk openly about disabling wi-fi so that they can focus on their work. Though she is harsh and straightforward in her criticisms, she remains understanding and gracious, recognizing the vulnerability and fragility that characterizes the human spirit. It is this vulnerability and fragility that she calls and summons us to celebrate and affirm, for she is convinced that in our approach to, and attitude toward interaction with others, we are coming to fear and avoid these. Conversation is what makes us human, and in avoiding conversation, we are losing our ability to embrace and appreciate what it means to be human.

Based on five years of research and interviews in homes, schools, and the workplace, Turkle argues that we have come to a better understanding of where our technology can and cannot take us and that the time is right to reclaim conversation; the most human—and humanizing—thing that we do.

In the end, Turkle is optimistic that people will begin to want to reclaim their privacy, and to turn back to their relationships with real people. Yet she concedes that the lure of technology is such that it's a tough challenge. "Online you become the self you want to be." But the downside? We lose the "raw, human part" of being with each other.

“...we are changed as technology offers us substitutes for connecting with each other face-to-face. We are offered robots and a whole world of machine-mediated relationships on networked devices. As we instant-message, e-mail, text, and Twitter, technology redraws the boundaries between intimacy and solitude. We talk of getting “rid” of our e-mails, as though these notes are so much excess baggage. Teenagers avoid making telephone calls, fearful that they “reveal too much.” They would rather text than talk. Adults, too, choose keyboards over the human voice. It is more efficient, they say. Things that happen in “real time” take too much time. Tethered to technology, we are shaken when that world “unplugged” does not signify, does not satisfy. After an evening of avatar-to avatar talk in a networked game, we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life and, in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers. We build a following on Facebook or MySpace and wonder, to what degree our followers are friends. We recreate ourselves as online personae and give ourselves new bodies, homes, jobs and romances. Yet, suddenly, in the half-light of a virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves. Sometimes people experience no sense of having communicated after hours of connection. And they report feelings of closeness when they are paying little attention. In all of this, there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?”

“If behind popular fascination with Freudian theory there was a nervous, often guilty preoccupation with the self as sexual, behind increasing interest in computational interpretations of mind, is an equally nervous preoccupation with the self, as machine.”

“The technology has become like a phantom limb; it is so much a part of them. These young people are among the first to grow up with an expectation of continuous connection: always on, and always on them. And they are among the first to grow up not necessarily thinking of simulation as second best. All of this makes them fluent with technology but brings a set of new insecurities.”

“Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship, without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.”

“But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyberintimacies slide into cybersolitudes. And with constant connection comes new anxieties of disconnection,”


Sherry Turkle was born in Brooklyn on June 18, 1948. She is an Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and the founder (2001) and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Professor Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.

Turkle focuses her research on psychoanalysis and human-technology interaction. She has written several books focusing on the psychology of human relationships with technology, especially in the realm of how people relate to computational objects. Some them are The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (1984); Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995); Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011) and the newest Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015).

Professor Turkle writes on the "subjective side" of people's relationships with technology, especially computers. She is an expert on mobile technology, social networking and sociable robotics. Profiles of Professor Turkle have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Scientific American, and Wired Magazine. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.